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The Leader

Bugs, Bites and Sunburns

By Tod Schimelpfenig, WMI Curriculum director

Reprinted from The Leader, Spring 2003, Vol. 18, No. 2

When we enjoy the serenity and beauty of the wild outdoors we also experience insects and solar radiation, bugs and sun. Sun exposure causes sunburn, skin cancer and premature aging. Mosquitoes are annoying and transmit diseases like the West Nile Virus. As summer approaches, let’s briefly review how we defend against bugs and sun with repellents, sunscreen and clothing.

Repellents create a vapor shield that confuses the insect. They swarm, but landing and biting is difficult. DEET-based repellents remain the standard. DEET has been used extensively for 40 years and is deemed safe by the Environmental Protection Agency. If you’re skeptical, or if your bugs are merely annoying and not overwhelming, there are alternatives to DEET. A recent study demonstrating DEET’s effectiveness also noted that lemon eucalyptus protected for 120 minutes, the best of the non-DEET repellents. Citronella-based repellents protected for 20 minutes or less, and Avon Skin-So-Soft for 9 minutes. In comparison, 23.8% DEET protected for 301 minutes. You might also note a recent comment by bear expert Steven Herrero that citronella can attract bears.

If you camp with children, it’s suggested by the American Academy of Pediatrics that you choose repellents with less than 10% DEET, and use them sparingly. Keep the repellent off children’s hands to reduce the chance for the repellent getting in their eyes and mouths.

Read the label carefully. You only need repellent on exposed skin or on clothing. Heavy application and saturation are unnecessary. Some insect repellent products also contain a sunscreen or skin lotion. Be careful. If you use it as a sunscreen you might be applying more repellent than you need, or want.

Sunscreens work by absorbing or reflecting ultraviolet radiation. Acute sun damage is mainly caused by UVB radiation, and chronic damage by UVA. State-of-the-art sunscreens, including Avobenzone, Oxybenzone, Titanium Dioxide, Octyl Methoxycinnamate, and Octyl Salicylate, block, to varying degrees, both UVB and UVA. Zinc and titanium dioxide provide the broadest spectrum protection but for years were messy and unsightly. Newer “micronized” zinc preparations are transparent and comfortable to wear. Z-COTE® transparent zinc oxide is the only ingredient that covers virtually the entire UVR spectrum. Unlike many active sunscreen ingredients, zinc oxide also has the advantage of being non-allergenic.

Sunscreens need to be put on early, often and completely. We often wait too long, don’t put on enough, and miss spots like the top of the ears, the temples and the back of the neck. We need to replace sunscreen washed off by sweat and swimming. I know NOLS instructors who put sunscreen on at the start of every day and are diligent about re-applying it during the day…good for them.

Clothing provides a physical barrier to both sun and bugs. I was recently looking over the equipment list from my Wind River Wilderness course in 1971. Rock pitons and a piton hammer are on the list, along with boxer shorts to keep our wool pants from chafing, two wool sweaters that would be sewn into a double-length sweater, and a wide brimmed hat and long-sleeve cotton shirt.

Those double sweaters were stylish, but I appreciate the light, warm and quick-drying modern fabrics, and modern nuts and cam devices. But where baseball hats and short or sleeveless shirts are in style, I still choose to use a wide brimmed hat to keep the sun from my face, and long cotton sleeves, or my nylon windshirt, to keep the sun, bugs and bug repellent, from my arms.


If you camp with children, it’s suggested by the American Academy of Pediatrics that you choose repellents with less than 10% DEET, and use them sparingly.
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